The idea of a vertically driven mechanism of flight has long stood in the annals of the human mind. Officially first being recorded by the Chinese (around 300 BC) in the form of hand-driven bamboo flying toys, the ever evolving quest to perfect this venture has been undertaken by many over the years.
In the 1480s, the first documented functioning machine that could have the capacity to charter a human was invented by Leonardo DaVinci. It was named the Aerial Screw, based on the design of a water screw spiral rotor. DaVinci used linen as his test canvas for the rotor, but noted that without newly created materials that were sufficiently lighter and stronger than what was available in his time, that his Aerial Screw wouldn’t be capable of lifting a human off the ground.
In the above image we see a more modernized version of the hand-driven bamboo flying toys of the Chinese. Alphonse Pénaud was born in Paris, France, and in 1870 invented a series of rubber band powered flying machines. By anchoring each end of a rubber band down, then twisting the head to “load” it, this mechanism was the first, practical and functional, unassisted flight apparatus.
Later, in 1878, a larger scaled model of these toy helicopters was designed and manufactured by Enrico Forlanini. This unmanned steam-powered vehicle was recorded as having flown up 39 feet into the air before hovering at that altitude for a few seconds, before losing power and descending.
It is also worth noting that during this time period, Thomas Edison was hired by multiple agencies to develop a helicopter machine. Though over 20 years of research elapsed, Edison proved to time the only thing he was good at: stealing other people’s ideas. Edison on his own was more or less incapable of inventing anything worthwhile, and just rode off the coattails of other, actually talented, inventors.
While Edison was off lying and cheating, real inventors, like Hermann Ganswindt of Eastern Prussia, underwent the maiden flight (in 1901) of the first heavier-than-air motor-driven flight capable of carrying people. While video documentation of this machine has been lost to time, it was never-the-less a major milestone in the development of the helicopter as it was the first time the concept of a vertical drive bore fruit in regards to the chartering of people. It was also during this year that a Slovak inventor, of no reputable name, made modifications to Edison’s series of failed ideas. While managing to NOT kill his lab assistants (something Edison also failed at), the Slovak’s device flew up 1.6 feet into the air. Four years later, in 1905, the same team’s continued development on Edison’s failed design netted a 13 foot vertical flight, with over 4,900 horizontal feet traveled.
The greatest achievement in this venue, however, occurred in 1907 and is given to Paul Cornu, a French bicycle maker. While various other models and design attempts were attempted over the last few decades, Paul’s design was the first that all modern day helicopters were based upon.
While entirely man-powered, the vehicle closely resembles that of a bicycle, but is also why it’s the foundation stone for all modern day helicopters. The axial wheels and bands powering and controlling this machine are basically what we still use to this day, albeit with slight modifications and more advanced materials. Paul’s helicopter managed to lift off the ground a foot, for around 20 seconds. Having read this part after knowing about the prior machines mentioned, these numbers might seem underwhelming, but progress is often made with one step forward only after two steps back are taken.
The next predominant name in the development of the helicopter is Etienne Oehmichen, another French inventor. He set two milestones within a year of each other in 1924: the first completion of a flight over 1 km in length, and the first double passenger flight.
Finally we come to Igor Sikorsky, a Russian born inventor who is credited with the R-4, the first mass produced helicopter. By the end of World War II, Sikorsky had manufactured over 400 helicopters and had established Helicopters as a standardized vehicle.